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It’s A Poor Sort Of Memory That Only Works Backwards; Or, New (Old) Thoughts About Tenure

December 16, 2010, 2:16 pm

Alice Ad-dressing the White Queen.

`You’re wrong there, at any rate,’ said the Queen: `were you ever punished?’

`Only for faults,’ said Alice.

`And you were all the better for it, I know!’ the Queen said triumphantly.

`Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for,’ said Alice: `that makes all the difference.’

`But if you hadn’t done them,’ the Queen said, `that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!’ Her voice went higher with each `better,’ till it got quite to a squeak at last.

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) (1871)

Paul Caron over at Tax Prof Blog reports that a new study “conducted under the auspices of the American Bar Foundation with additional funding from the Law School Admission Council” finds that “the perceptions of female tenured faculty members and tenured faculty of color” about the granting of tenure in law schools “differ significantly” from the perceptions “of their white male counterparts. Both female professors and professors of color perceived the tenure process as less fair and more difficult than did male or white professors. Female professors of color had the most negative perceptions [.]“ 
  
Quelle surprise.  Try doing this study in the humanities and social sciences, why don’t you?

It is interesting how we can know these things and then continue on as if we did not know these things.  I have to wonder whether any empirical study is capable of altering the ingrained practices that produce the “perceptions” described above (many of us would substitute the word “reality” here, but never mind.)  For different reasons, depending on our position in the hierarchy of academic bodies, like Alice’s White Queen, we who are tenured have become adept at managing impossible information.  While one commenter on Caron’s post is amazed that you would survey a group of people who have succeeded in a gate keeping process about the fairness of the gate keeping, I would argue that part of what is interesting about the study is that people who have succeeded don’t always see their own success at achieving tenure as an unqualified vote of confidence for their intellectual work.  Indeed, the difficulty of evaluation and promotion, the rude inquiries that are often made about women and scholars of color during tenure procedures and the public undermining of the intellectual authority of these scholars even in successful promotion cases, is often stunning.  It is equally stunning to me how eager one’s colleagues are to relieve white men from the burdens of such scrutiny.  A variety of what might be considered flaws and procedural bloopers that require lengthy revisiting for women and scholars of color are simply dismissed as irrelevant for white men.  Connections of the candidate to prominent people in hir field that are serving as tenure referees are seen as proof of a white man’s prestige (correct).  But in the case of (wo)men of color, such referees are often dismissed because they are perceived as lacking objectivity (they are often perceived as lacking status in the field as well), and new ones must be found, even if those new referees are further from the field of specialization. And scholars in queer studies?  Fugedaboudit.

Here’s another piece of unofficial data for you:  the number of women, and people of color who, denied tenure in one place, go on to a better job elsewhere.  Not always true, but boy, would I like to see the numbers on it.  A common assumption about failed promotion cases is that the person’s career as a scholar is brought to an abrupt end by denial, and that is true in too many cases.  However, very often it is not true, and that is where follow up of failed tenure cases might be worthy of investigation. At one prestigious SLAC I know well, two tenure cases involving individuals in the group under scrutiny were differently fumbled in the not so recent past, and both individuals almost immediately went on to tenured positions at prestigious R-I universities.  You would think that would count as some kind of data, wouldn’t you? Or that it might trigger some kind of public recognition at the tenure-denying institution that what is being smugly articulated as high standards could be, just perhaps, something else.

`That accounts for the bleeding, you see,’ [the White Queen] said to Alice with a smile. `Now you understand the way things happen here.’

`But why don’t you scream now?’ Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.

`Why, I’ve done all the screaming already,’ said the Queen. `What would be the good of having it all over again?’

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